For lasting peace

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

Maoists in an exercise at Saranbari, southwest of Kathmandu, on April 27. - PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

Maoists in an exercise at Saranbari, southwest of Kathmandu, on April 27. - PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP

The people and the political players pull Nepal back from the brink, with some help from India; now it is time to let the U.N. to play its part.

THE most ubiquitous slogan during the three-week people's movement of April 2006 was "Gyane Chor, Desh Chod", derogatorily urging King Gyanendra to make haste out of the country. As things have unfolded, the King is still in the country, with a reprieve for having capitulated to the people's will close to midnight of April 24.

It would have been better if the political parties had utilised the unprecedented people power by wresting the initiative and declaring restoration of the Third Parliament from the street. Instead, Gyanendra saved his kingship from immediate disintegration by a show of surrender, admitting that sovereignty lay with the people, reinstating the Third Parliament and asking the agitating Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) to form the government. It now remains for a Constituent Assembly to decide on the future state structure of Nepal, including what space there should be, if any, for kingship under the new Constitution.

The millions of citizens who made up the people's movement participated with the understanding that the collapse of Gyanendra's regime was essential to pave the way for peace with the Maoists. Having conducted the royal coup of February 1, 2005, under the garb of battling insurgents, the King was proving a roadblock to reconciliation, and the public understood this.

Indian foreign policy played its part in the defeat of Gyanendra, by siding with Nepal's people during the one-year-and-four-months' absolute royal rule. South Block kept its cool while fending off pressures from the intelligence agencies, the princely nobility, the Indian `brother army', and the Hindutva contingent. Its logic was that in the evolved society that Nepal had become, only democracy could provide peace and stability, which was also important for India. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's nod and some help of the Left was an essential element in nudging the Maobaadi to the table with the political parties of Nepal, in barely camouflaged talks conducted in the Indian capital.

With democracy at hand, the attention now shifts to delivering peace in hill, valley and plain. The actual movement towards peace began as far back as August 2005, when the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) decided to ratchet down its `people's war' and to submit to competitive, multi-party politics. More politicians than revolutionaries, the rebel leaders had come to accept the impossibility of using arms to capture state power under existing national, subcontinental and international conditions. The decision of the Maoist plenum opened the way for dialogue with the political parties, which led to a 12-point accord in November 2005. That in turn provided the long-awaited fuel to the `Jana Andolan 2062-63', and the mass movement took off in mid-April, at the turn of the Nepali new year.

With Parliament reinstated, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala in office, a bilateral ceasefire in place and Maoist supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal having agreed to talks, this is a tantalising moment, holding the promise of a definitive end to the insurgency. If Nepal can manage it, it will be a strong signal to all of South Asia that conflicts need not fester for decades on end as they do in Kashmir, the Indian northeast, the Sri Lankan northeast or Telangana.

The Nepali people need this reprieve because, historically oppressed, in the modern era they have had to bear the burden of a misguided rebellion and reactionary state terror. For its own reasons, India too needs political stability in the region of the central Himalaya. The economic dynamism of a politically stable Nepal will help pull up the adjacent regions of Purvanchal and Bihar. Further, India would very much desire the romance attached to the Nepali Maobaadi to be channelled into open politics, as an example to its own burgeoning Left extremism. Dahal said as much in an interview to The Hindu of February 8-10, 2006, where he suggested that the parliamentary route was advisable also for the Indian Maoists in the evolved conditions of the 21st century.

As with its response to the royal takeover, New Delhi has also acted with enlightened self-interest in engaging the Maoists despite the vehement anti-India rhetoric that was their long-standing platform until a couple of years ago. There is reason to believe that New Delhi had a hand in ensuring that a dangerous tear within the topmost rebel leadership was sutured, uniting it as the dialogue began and allowing them to deal with the upcoming peace process as one. This same open-mindedness is now required of New Delhi as Nepal seeks international involvement to build the ceasefire and bring back lasting peace.

To understand some home truths about the Maoists, even though on occasion they sought to exploit minority sentiments, what they proposed was class warfare, always easier to resolve than an identity-based insurgency. Further, this has been an indigenous movement of Nepal that did not get material support from outside, which limited the Maoist firepower even as it reduced the complexities of the conflict. And yet, as they embark on the path of non-violent politics, the Maoists will have to tackle the many contradictions that will bubble to the surface for the world to see. While rejecting their violent legacy, it will be important for interlocutors in Kathmandu, New Delhi and elsewhere during this transition phase to show consideration for the contradictions.

For a while, having shifted the goal-post, the rebel leadership will have to say one thing to the world and another thing to the cadre. The rebels' recruitment call as well as motivational propaganda of the last decade, after all, was based on talk of a glorious revolution that would take the fighters to the seat of power in Kathmandu, before talking of `Bharatiya bistaarbaad' (Indian expansionism) and United States imperialism. It was also based on the promise of employment and career advancement at the centre once victory was theirs.

In the weeks and months ahead, the rebel leaders must show the agility to maintain credibility on parallel tracks. Observers will be required to check Maoist vitriol on the loudspeaker as against psychological and physical violence on the ground. The rebel leadership requires `space' as it seeks to deal with the `war party' within its own rank and file, who will be losing district-level power as the ceasefire sticks and evolves.

From selling the borrowed visions of proletarian revolution and great leaps forward (`agragami chalang'), the Maosists were forced by the ground reality to reduce their demand to a republic sans monarchy. Their bottom line now is even more conciliatory: a Constituent Assembly where the population gets to choose the kind of system it wants. As long as they continued to espouse armed militancy, however, it was not possible for politicians or critical thinkers among Nepali civil society to accept even this moderated agenda. It was the climbdown of the August 2005 plenum which made it possible to accept a Constituent Assembly as the `price' to be paid for bringing the violent insurgency to an end.

The process towards a Constituent Assembly will be simultaneously exhilarating and tortuous, with the sitting Parliament now required to address the matter head on, including the very nature of the assembly, its election process, and how disfranchised communities can be represented or otherwise make their voices heard around the table. The all-important matters of demobilisation of Maoist fighters, management of their arms as well as the downsizing of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) will have to be decided before assembly elections are held, even as the ceasefire is monitored.

The process of separation of forces and de-escalation of the conflict is of utmost importance for long-term peace. Political observers in Kathmandu overwhelmingly feel that this critical period requires international facilitation, and not just because it is an integral part of the Maoist precondition as explicitly stated in the 12-point agreement.

The problem is that India, with its overwhelming interest in Nepal across the open border, has shown extreme reluctance in allowing international involvement. Part of this reluctance appears to be because of the politico-bureaucratic inertia related to the traditional power that India has wielded over its smaller neighbour and partly because of the incongruous linkage some seek to establish with the Kashmir issue where too a demand may be made for United Nations facilitation.

Besides the fact that such an outlook does not give due importance to Nepal's independence and sovereignty, it seems that New Delhi's policy-wallahs will have to consider the prospects of peace-almost-in-hand versus the pull of an ancient attitude. Would maintenance of this stance correspond with India's own newfound strategic self-confidence as a world player, especially when it would expose a level of insecurity within the subcontinent itself? Could international involvement in Nepal peace-building not be seen as a logical follow-up to the achievements of the return to democracy, for which India too gets a large part of the credit?

It could be that New Delhi's reluctance is based on a conviction that its existing leverage is adequate to force the rebels to submit to the ceasefire and demobilisation without United Nations or other international monitoring.

But what if such understanding is faulty? The situation on the ground is exponentially more complex than convincing a handful of rebel leaders in New Delhi hideouts, for we are talking about a large network of young armed fighters throughout Nepal, possibly confused and angry, who will need to be monitored if there is not to be a fracturing of rebel forces and a descent into warlordism. A code of conduct to be developed between the two sides would also have to be forced on the RNA, whose black record during the conflict does not give confidence about its attitude during the ceasefire.

Nepal needs more than half a peace, so that another violent movement does not erupt in another 10 years. The corollary to India's support for a return to democracy in the country is support for a return to permanent peace.

It is critical that the energy and legitimacy of the people's movement of spring 2006 be sustained during the ceasefire and peace-building process. The voice of the Nepali people, which made itself heard over 10 years of armed conflict and actions of a despotically inclined King, must not be lost in the days ahead. Violence and intimidation must be taken out of the equation, allowing civil society, the rule of law and non-violent dispute settlement back into the space, allowing the Nepali people to make decisions about their future based on the strength of argument rather than the capacity to impose fear.

A lasting peace process is not just about the demands of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) but also about addressing grievances of historically oppressed minorities, who feel left out of the political and governance process. It will not be possible for the oppressed to be heard amidst ongoing violence, nor is it possible to create conditions for lasting peace, without a proper ceasefire and management of arms.

Nepal already has the effective presence of the United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), with a strong mandate for ground-based monitoring of human rights abuse. The office is headed by Ian Martin, former head of Amnesty International and proponent of a worldwide movement for `transitional justice'.

This Nepal presence constitutes the largest field office of the OHCHR, set up by High Commissioner Louise Arbour in consultation with Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in order to prevent Nepal from converting into a violence-ridden failed state.

The existing mandate and staffing of the OHCHR already allows the U.N. to carry out most of the monitoring activity required to ensure observation of the present ceasefire. All that is required in addition, to ensure separation of forces, is to add a small military component with a limited clear mandate.

In terms of impact, Martin's office has been able to change the `practices' on the ground by both the rebels and the Army. The OHCHR's results have been remarkable on any scale, achieved in the face of the royal regime's continuous prevarication, which is what gives Nepalis the confidence in asking the U.N. to be part of the peace-building process.

Complementing the work of Nepal's own active national human rights community, the OHCHR office has been able to draw the Maoists into ever-clearer commitments to abide by the principles of humanitarian law. Indeed, the past year saw a dramatic fall in the Maoist killings of non-combatants. The effective working relationship developed by the office with the Maoists at the national, regional and district leadership levels will be useful in ceasefire monitoring.

The U.N. presence has also seen a clear fall in disappearances ascribed to the police and the Army and a reduction in the number of illegal detentions in military barracks. The U.N., it must be remembered, holds unique leverage with the RNA, which prizes its international peace-keeping role in terms of both prestige and income.

There is perceived neutrality in the U.N. attitude, which cannot be said for any other actor, and there is no other mechanism that can kick in right away to allow countrywide, effective monitoring. A revised mandate of the U.N. office seems in order so that it can graduate from monitoring human rights to ensuring maintenance of ceasefire and separation of forces. This role would expand in the run up to the Assembly elections, at which time there would be demobilisation, management of Maoists arms, and the downsizing and recasting of the RNA to be addressed. The U.N. would also be able to support the process for transitional justice, which would allow Nepalese society to go through the `truth and reconciliation' process that promotes accountability for part crimes and human rights violations.

The Maoists were in Parliament after the first people's movement of 1990. They took a wayward turn in 1996 and got the country embroiled in a vicious conflict for the next decade. Today, they say credibly that they seek to return to Parliament. Rather than challenge the logic of their days in the jungle and seek to rub the rebel nose in the mud, it has been the attitude of responsible politicians in Nepal - and policy-makers in India - to allow the rebels a re-entry into open politics. The patience and sagacity evident in such an attitude is what has allowed a country at war to reach out for peace and reconciliation.

Just as the mass movement of April 2006 was a simple yet profound victory for people power and proof of the common citizen's belief in democracy and pluralism, Nepal and Nepalis may just yet prove to the world that they are capable of going back to a state of peace. For this, they need a helping international hand.

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